How To Grow Herbs

Interest in growing herbs has increased sharply over the last few years as we learn the usefulness of their culinary, medicinal and aromatic properties.

Even if herbs weren’t edible and didn’t possess medicinal qualities, they would be useful additions to any garden. They are decorative, an important ingredient of cottage style gardens, will attract a variety of insects including bees, and can be grown in many different ways.

Where Can I Grow Herbs?

Herb wheels are a traditional formal method of raising herbs with different sections preventing invasive species from taking over the whole plot.

Alternatively, various containers, hanging baskets and pots can be employed. Timber planters are really useful especially raised ones as you don't have to bend down too far to pick the herbs.

Grown in pots outside, herbs can be attractive specimens in their own right, but, particularly if you have only recently started to grow herbs, there's nothing easier that to use small pots on the kitchen windowsill. Here basil can be on hand to enhance your Italian meals and coriander ready to add to curries.

An informal herb garden can be very decorative and for convenience it should be near your kitchen. It needn't be large, a plot just one metre square near your kitchen door can be planted with many types of herb.

Herbs can also be grown throughout the garden. Annuals can go among bedding plants, perennials are at home in the herbaceous border, whilst shrubby herbs can be planted in mixed borders. Some of the sprawling varieties can even be introduced into cracks and crevices around the patio or any paved area.

What Soil Conditions Are Best For Herbs?

As a general rule, and as many herbs derive from the Mediterranean, choose a spot that gets plenty of sunshine. Herbs prefer a well drained soil with a pH of about 7.0 and free from weeds, a mulch of well rotted manure or compost in the winter will be appreciated and they may well need watering in prolonged dry periods.

Pots and containers are prone to drying out very quickly, particularly in the sun, so keep the compost moist. Your herbs will also be dependent on liquid feeding once they have exhausted the fertilizer content from the compost.

What Herbs Should I Grow?

Herbs may be chosen for their culinary or medicinal uses, or as decorative plants for their appearance. A little research will help you avoid some that may be inappropriate, for example fennel and lovage need lots of space that you may not have. Others are tender, bay needs to be brought indoors over the winter and you may not have the frost free environment that's required.

Any list of herbs can't be exhaustive, but I've selected a few, all commonly available, that are well worth growing

Balm: A decorative aromatic perennial that can be used fresh for salads and with iced drinks. Sow outside in late spring in water retentive soil, you can keep its bushy habit by trimming, and it should be divided every three years.

Basil: There are two types, Bush and the taller more flavoursome Sweet, the latter's leaves are used in many Mediterranean dishes. Grow as an sun loving annual after sowing in small pots indoors during the spring. Basil can be planted out in good soil 12ins apart when frost danger has passed but may be better grown in a pot on a windowsill.

Bay: This is a tree that can be container grown in a sunny or partially shaded position using soil based compost. Keep well watered and apply a regular liquid feed, bring inside when there is any chance of frost.

Borage: A hardy annual that will self-seed, borage has attractive blue flowers that bees love, it can be used fresh or dried and medicinally for a variety of disorders. Sow seeds in a sunny position during mid-spring, it is tolerant of most soil conditions.

Chamomile: Fully hardy with very fragrant feathery leaves, chamomile can be ingested, used a cream or as an essential oil, it is a perennial with a cornucopia of uses. Cultivars with white daisy like flowers (Roman chamomile) are best for culinary purposes including chamomile tea. Start from seed in late spring, place in a propagator and then prick out seedlings into pots. Transplant into sunny well drained soil, or in pots and clip regularly during the growing season to keep the bushy shape.

Chives: Chopped leaves of this hardy perennial can be used in a wide variety of dishes. It also makes a good border edging, sow outside in early spring in moist soil, and then divide every three years in the autumn.

Coriander: A hardy annual that's easy to grow and can be sown in well prepared soil in early summer, or alternatively in pots, keep moist and remember to sow regularly for a continuous crop.

Feverfew: With a marvellous alternative name of Bachelor's Buttons, this bushy perennial can be used as a tea to help migraine sufferers. It likes a sunny well drained position, sow seed in the spring and cut back after flowering.

Fennel: A vigorous tall hardy perennial, plant or sow seed in either spring or autumn, lift and divide every three years. Both leaves and seeds have a taste of aniseed.

Lavender: The dried flowers of this shrub can be used in sweetly scented sachets for fragrance. Its sweet smelling flowers are a valued culinary ingredient and also used in aromatherapy. Lavender likes only moderately fertile alkaline soil that's free draining, plant in a sunny position about 3ft apart in the spring.

Lovage: This very tall shrubby hardy perennial will need plenty of space but will die down each year. It's a good border plant with large seed heads and yellow flowers. Likes a sunny position but can tolerate shade, lovage likes soil that has had a lot of organic matter dug in.

Marjoram: Can be used to combat hay fever and has lots of culinary uses. Sweet marjoram should be grown as a half-hardy annual, sow inside during early spring and then plant out after the threat of frost. Likes a sunny position, work in organic matter before planting

Mint: Said to have several health benefits, especially soothing digestion and eliminating toxins. Its cooling qualities are also helpful for skin ailments. Mint is much more tolerant than most and will grow in nearly any type of soil, particularly in semi-shade. In fact, it’s practically impossible to fail, the only thing to worry about is its invasive nature.

Parsley: Particularly popular in British cooking, either the traditional curly, crispy type or the continental flat leaved variety. Treated as an annual, sow parsley indoors in late winter and plant out in the spring, or outside in spring and summer in a partially shaded location and in soil that has been enriched with manure or compost.

Rosemary: Another aromatic evergreen that will make a fine border plant and loves dry sunny weather. Very decorative, attracts insects and a strongly aromatic cooking ingredient. It can be difficult to grow from seed, so take cuttings in the summer or buy as a container plant. Although with a liking for well drained conditions, you can incorporate some organic matter. This attractive shrub can also make useful hedging when planted close together.

Sage: A decorative hardy shrub with aromatic grey-green furry leaves, has purple flowers that are a great bee attractant. It’s used a great deal in British and Italian cooking especially as a stuffing. A well drained soil is particularly important for sage. It doesn’t always breed true from seed, so it’s probably better to buy a plant or propagate by layering or softwood cuttings.

Tarragon: This perennial has aromatic leaves that can be used fresh or dry as a food flavouring. It's best to grow the French variety (not Russian) as it has more flavour. Plants need to be replaced every three years, buy them in the spring, they like well drained soil in a sheltered sunny position or you can use a pot filled with gritty compost. Keep any container off the ground but well watered and cover with fleece over winter.

Thyme: A decorative plant that attracts pollinators to its favoured sunny position in a well drained soil. Common and Lemon thyme are most usually found in the kitchen, and different varieties can be used as border edging and ground cover. Probably best bought as a pot plant, you can propagate by division, layering or from cuttings, as well as sowing seed outside from mid-spring. Space about 12ins apart and cut back hard after flowering.